IBM’s Paul Farrell: ‘Creating a culture of innovation is about being open’

7 Dec 2018

IBM Ireland country manager Paul Farrell. Image: IBM

From a dearth of data to data overload, organisations must strive to be both creative and nimble. IBM Ireland country manager Paul Farrell reveals how organisations can foster a culture of innovation.

Paul Farrell recently took the reins of IBM Ireland as country manager. Having served as an officer in the Irish Defence Forces, he then worked as a consultant and partner in the Irish market before moving to the tech giant.

Farrell joined IBM 16 years ago and has operated in a number of executive and leadership roles across Ireland, the UK and Europe during his career. Before taking on his current role, he led the company’s global business services delivery organisation in the UK and Ireland.

‘Propelled by our belief that the phenomenon of digitalisation and data would reorder technology and business, IBM undertook one of the most ambitious reinventions in its modern history’

IBM has a long association with Ireland, going back more than six decades to 1956 when it first opened an office here. Today, the company has global innovation as well as local commercial activities here and employs roughly 3,000 people in Ireland.

From your vantage point, what are the main tech trends IBM will focus on in 2019 and beyond?

Our mission at IBM is to help our clients change the way the world works. We are at the cutting edge of research, development and application for a range of digital trends and technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, cloud, automation and quantum computing.

90pc of business executives say their industries will see disruption by the digital trends. Industries are being altered, and in many cases reinvented, by the transformative power of these digital technologies. They are affecting customers and markets, industries and economies, value chains, marketing and distribution, operations and production, organisation, collaboration, and partnering.

In the Irish marketplace, organisations are sharpening their focus on AI, cloud, cybersecurity and data science. Blockchain is in the positioning phase, with several proofs of concept and increased collaborations taking place.

These technologies will only grow more important in the years to come. Collectively, they portend a powerful evolution in computing that will exceed anything we’ve previously seen. It’s also a reaffirmation of technology’s role as a force for good in a world that desperately needs it.

To gain an advantage of digital technologies, companies must also change how they work, where they work and what principles they use to guide their work. Businesses and organisations need to adapt to keep pace with these changes by reskilling their people, and teaching them new ways to work in cloud, AI, security, IoT and more will be key.

IBM has also led the industry in establishing trust and transparency principles for the development of new AI technologies. We encourage all technology companies to adopt similar principles to protect client data and insights, and to ensure the responsible and transparent use of AI and other transformative innovations.

How does an organisation with IBM’s deep heritage in technology maintain its edge in a world defined by digitalisation and data?

Over the last few years, propelled by our belief that the phenomenon of digitalisation and data would reorder technology and business, IBM undertook one of the most ambitious reinventions in its modern history.

Accordingly, at IBM Ireland today, it’s all around data, AI and cloud, and we’re working in more agile and flexible ways. In broad strokes, these include new trusted bonds with customers, new ventures to scale on platforms, and more nimble teams.

Our clients in Ireland are likewise seeing the power this combination offers; how it can help them drive new business insights, enhance efficiencies, reduce risks and deliver new user experiences to their own customers.

For many companies, however, the digitalisation problem has evolved from a dearth of data to one of data overload. Businesses have massive amounts of data to leverage and create one-on-one experiences with their customers. As a result, enterprises are struggling to harvest and manage that data. Many more are facing the challenge of transforming their data into actionable information, or seeing where AI can help them to make better business decisions.

Consequently, our job at IBM is to help our clients in Ireland transform their business processes, assimilate the new technologies and capabilities, and help them to pivot quickly to new market opportunities using data and benefits that a digital transformation offers.

IBM in Ireland boasts one of the largest footprints of employees who have authored patents in the entire IBM world. How did this come to be and how do organisations imprint innovation into their DNA?

Since its foundation, IBM has a history of innovation and a deeply held belief in ethical and responsible patenting, and has always encouraged employees to discover new and better ways of doing things.

This spirit has helped IBM to build a portfolio of scientific, technical and business patents that hold the key to addressing some of the greatest challenges facing our world today, such as helping to keep drivers from falling asleep, promoting greater financial inclusion and dramatically reducing toxic levels of air pollution etc.

At IBM in Ireland, we continue this tradition to inspire, encourage and celebrate a culture of innovation. It’s a process too that is inherently about problem-solving, and increasingly teamwork and collaboration is an important element for discovery.

For us, the innovation process can begin with employees holding patent brainstorming sessions with cross-functional teams using design thinking to list societal challenges or business ideas. Eventually, their solutions could turn into a patent. Or, it begins from feedback on a published technical paper helping us to make improvements to an AI solution that creates a virtual cycle of innovation, and this too could turn into a patent.

Creating a culture of innovation is about being open and dedicated to improvement both internally and with your clients. And this never ends, as new opportunities, some of them disruptive, will emerge. It’s the organisations that remain open to change that orchestrate the innovation advantage.

Globally, the war for tech is quintessentially the war for talent. How do organisations such as IBM, and how must nations such as Ireland, gear themselves up to win in the war for talent?

IBMers have built our company on enduring values and principles, and one of those principles has been the importance of continuing to grow and build skills.

Within IBM, our HR teams have infused AI into key workflows to solve pervasive talent issues, such as knowing our skills, preventing unwanted employee turnover, reacting quickly to employee hotspots, matching employees and external candidates with career opportunities, supporting managers with better salary investment guidance, eliminating manual tasks in benefits administration and payroll through robotic process automation, and creating an irresistible platform for employees to learn on the go.

We believe that building a workforce to compete in the era of AI is as much about culture and specialised expertise as it is about technology. For instance, we actively engage with our employees on ‘good tech’ – how our technology is a force for good and sustainable human development.

Participating in initiatives like ‘call for code’ allows employees to use their skills and mastery of the latest technologies to drive positive and long-lasting change across the world. With the help of IBM Talent and Transformation, AI can be ushered into organisations gearing up to win the war on talent, and become the catalyst for HR organisations to transform from service function to growth engine. It can help companies attract and retain a diverse and highly skilled workforce that drives and evolves with the future of their business.

At a national level, I’m very proud that IBM has been able to bring the P-Tech (Pathways in Technology) model to Irish second-level students and, with the help of their schools, colleges and the Department of Education and Skills, adapt it to work in the Irish educational context.

An Taoiseach, the Minster for Education and Skills, and the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform announced in November the piloting of the P-Tech school model in Dublin’s north-east inner city to give local students a career pathway in the digital economy.

The P-Tech model is directly aligned to job opportunities in the digital economy. Digital economy jobs include some of the technology industry’s fastest-growing fields – from cybersecurity and cloud computing, to cognitive business and digital design – which may not require a university degree but may need a specific skillset instead.

The first schools in Ireland to participate in the P-Tech pilot will be Larkin Community College, Marino College and St Joseph’s CBS, Dublin. The National College of Ireland will be the initial third-level education partner. IBM, Cisco, Virgin Media, Irish Water and Irish Life will participate as the first industry partners.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years